Brennivin, also called “Black Death,” is Icelands national drink made from fermented potato mash and flavored with caraway seeds. Legend has it that brennivin achieved its ominous nickname during the Icelandic prohibition, which was more lenient than the American prohibition.

During prohibition (from 1915 to 1922), the Icelandic government placed a skull and crossbones logo on all liquor bottles. Soon, drinkers grew accustomed to requesting “black death” at the counter of their local liquor store.

Brennivin, sometimes referred to as Brennivin schanpps, is a strong schnapps-like liquor with a pronounced, robust flavor and a high alcohol content, usually in the neighborhood of 37.5 percent ABV (Alcohol by Volume). It is similar to akvavit or aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor also distilled from potatoes.

How to Drink Brennivin

Though some critics may say the best way to drink brennivin is not to drink it at all, many people enjoy its strong flavor.

When drinking brennivin by itself, many prefer it to be ice-cold. You can achieve this by cooling the bottle in the freezer or pouring refrigerated brennivin into chilled shot glasses. Brennivin can be enjoyed in a tumbler over ice.

Brennivin in Food

In Iceland, Brennivin is best enjoyed with traditional Icelandic dishes, especially those that feature lamb or strong fish.

Originally, Brennivin was served with hkarl, which may explain brennivins strong flavor. Hkarl is basically rotten shark that is actually poisonous when eaten raw. To prepare hkarl, Icelanders gut the shark and bury it in a shallow, sandy grave for 612 weeks. The pressure from the sand squeezes out the uric acid in the fish. The meat, which carries an almost intoxicating ammonia-like smell, is then cubed and served on toothpicks. Brennivin is served as a chaser.

When using Brennivin for cooking, be careful and pour slowly, as adding too much may overwhelm the dish. Try cooking brennivin and butter in equal amounts over medium heat. Once the butter is foaming and the alcohol has dissipated, add mushrooms and a firm fish, such as halibut.

If you want to try a brennivin cockatail, the truth of the matter is that the best brennivin cocktail is brennivin all by itself.

Who Drinks Brennivin

Although Iceland levies a heavy tax against most alcoholic beverages, brennivin remains reasonably priced. Perhaps because it is the cheapest, strongest liquor readily available, brennivin is sometimes associated with the homeless or alcoholics in Iceland.

Brennivin is enjoyed on a larger scale on St. Thorlac”s Day (December 23), a holiday that honors the patron saint of Iceland. The traditional St. Thorlac”s meal is skate (another cured fish), mashed or boiled potatoes and a shot of brennivin.

Brennivin in Music

Many musicians have found inspiration in brennivin. While both the Foo Fighters and the Album Leaf are bands that have sung about brennivin, at least once Icelandic band, Stilluppsteypa, attributes its creative powers to this potent schnapps.

How to Get Brennivin

For most Americans, the best way to buy brennivin is online. To get in the Icelandic spirit once your case of brennivin arrives, chill it and shout Skl! as you throw a shot back.